On Wednesday in a committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Greta Thunberg delivered some very brief remarks. Presenting the Congress members gathered with a special report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released nearly a year ago, the Swedish climate activist said succinctly: “I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists. I want you to unite behind science. And then I want you to take real action.”
Republicans who have accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from fossil fuel companies and electric utilities spouted their usual talking points (“We’re already doing enough!”; “What about China?”), cooked up by lobbyists in K Street boardrooms. Garret Graves – who has taken more than half a million dollars from Pacs linked to dirty energy interests during his short stint in Congress – said we need “more science, not less” and seemed to take some pleasure in lobbing similar red herrings at the youth assembled in front of him, who asked mainly that he and his colleagues begin taking the potential end of human civilization seriously. The Georgia congressman Buddy Carter went a step farther and peddled a standard denialist line: “I believe in climate change. The climate has been changing since day one … Does man have an impact? Yes, that impact might be debatable.”
But many Democrats aren’t taking the science much more seriously.
The IPCC report Thunberg presented does not lay out a legislative proposal, though it does set some parameters. Barring a truly miraculous level of technological advancement, if the world is to stay below 1.5C of warming, coal, oil and gas usage will have to decline by 94, 87 and 74% worldwide, respectively, by 2050 – and probably sooner in the countries such as the United States that are best positioned to transition rapidly, so as not to eat up more of the planet’s dwindling carbon budget than it already has. The world has 12 years to cut its emissions in half to keep warming below that threshold, which climate-vulnerable nations have long argued is critical to their survival. To listen to the science, as Thunberg suggests, is to reach some pretty radical conclusions.
Most every elected Democrat has called for the US to recommit to the Paris agreement, but staying below the “well below 2 degrees” warming limit that document sets as its goal would require a rapid decline in the business model of the fossil fuel industry; added together, the national pledges it outlines as of now would shoot the world beyond 3 degrees of warming. Pushed by calls for a Green New Deal, those vying for the party’s nomination have by and large adopted ambitious pledges on climate – some more than others. Yet establishment Democrats in Congress are still attempting to pursue a middle ground on climate that simply doesn’t exist.
On Wednesday, the 103-member New Democrat Coalition –whose Pac BP, ExxonMobil and the Edison Electric Institute have all maxed out on donations to this year – outlined a series of incremental and “pro-market” steps to curb emissions. A suite of legislation unveiled on Wednesday would do many great things, like investing in clean energy research and development via ARPA-E and limiting emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. It is not, however, a plan for fulfilling the challenge laid out by the IPCC, leaving the door open to define coal as a potential source of “clean energy” in pursuit of a “technology-neutral, market-oriented standard for electric energy generation” and providing a financial incentive for fossil fuel companies to capture carbon dioxide and funnel it back into pumping out more fossil fuels.
Scientists don’t recommend a specific policy suite, but it would be hard to listen to them earnestly and reach the conclusion that you can gently nudge the fossil fuel industry toward a world warmed by less than 1.5 degrees, as New Democrats hope to. It’s also hard to square their argument that that approach would “build bipartisan consensus” with the last decade-plus of climate policymaking, where yielding off the bat to the Republicans and fossil fuel industry – boosting narrowly focused, technocratic measures – has failed to create any meaningful policy wins.
The upshot? Thunberg’s right. And establishment Democrats pushing doomed strategies and policies are denying climate reality nearly as much as Republicans.
Kate Aronoff is a freelance journalist focusing on US politics and the climate crisis